6 Questions (and Answers) About the Sequester

PHOTO: Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, arrives for a closed-door meeting with House Republicans as he negotiates with President Obama to avert the fiscal cliff, at the Capitol in Washington, Dec. 18, 2012. President Barack Obama speaks about th
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Nobody likes the sequester.

Even the word is enough to send shivers of fiscal panic, or sheer political malaise, down the spines of seasoned politicians and news reporters. And today, the sequester will almost certainly happen, a year and a half after its inception amid the stalemate of the debt-limit crisis in 2011.

Automatic budget cuts will be triggered across federal agencies, as President Obama will be required to order sequestration into effect before midnight Friday night. The federal bureaucracy will implement its various plans to save the money it's required to save.

Read more: How Automatic Cuts Could Hurt at the Local Level

Now that the sequester will probably happen, here are some questions and answers about it:

1. HOW BIG IS IT?

The cuts were originally slated for $109 billion this year, but after the fiscal-cliff deal postponed the sequester for two months by finding alternate savings, the sequester will amount to $85 billion over the next 10 months. In 2013, nondefense programs will be cut by nine percent, and defense programs will be cut by 13 percent.

If carried out over 10 years (as designed), the sequester will amount to $1.2 trillion in total.

2. WHAT WILL BE CUT, SPARED?

Most government programs will be cut, with the cuts distributed evenly (by dollar amount) between defense and nondefense programs.

Some vital domestic entitlements, however, will be spared. Social Security checks won't shrink; nor will Veterans Administration programs. Medicare benefits won't get cut, but payments to providers will shrink by two percent. The Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), food stamps, Pell grants, and Medicaid will all be shielded from the sequester.

But lots of things will get cut. The Obama administration has warned that a host of calamities will befall vulnerable segments of the population.

Read more: Sequester May Revive 'Amtrak' Joe Biden

3. WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE SO BAD?

Questions persist over whether or not it really does.

The sequester will mean such awful things because it forces agencies to cut indiscriminately, instead of simply stripping money from their overall budgets.

But some Republicans, including Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, have suggested that federal agencies have plenty of flexibility to implement these cuts while avoiding the worst of the purported consequences. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal accused President Obama of trying to "distort" the severity of the sequester. The federal government will still spend more money than it did last year, GOP critics of sequester alarmism have pointed out.

Read more: 57 Terrible Consequences of the Sequester

The White House tells a different story.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the sequestration law forces agency heads to cut the same percentage from each program. If that program is for TSA agents at airports, the sequester law doesn't care, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano can't do anything about it.

Agency heads do have some authority to "reprogram" funds, rearranging their money to circumvent the bad effects. An OMB official told ABC News that "these flexibilities are limited and do not provide significant relief due to the rigid nature of the way in which sequestration is required by law to be implemented."

4. WHEN WILL THE WORST OF IT START?

Not until April -- but some of the cuts could be felt before then.

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